ManagementOpinionTourism

How Airbnb is uniquely poised to service the frustrated disability sector

Whether travelling for business or pleasure, a quick search for accommodation invariably throws up the same descriptors: convenient location, close to transport, spacious bedroom, modern bathroom.

These vague and overused terms are designed to sell an experience but what do they truly reveal about a room, an apartment or a house?

While frustrating for able-bodied travellers, a lack of detail, misleading terms and incorrect information can severely impact the travel options and experiences of people with disability.

An apartment may be marketed as “accessible” but there is no usable information about how high the sink is, how far the bed is from the wall, how bright the lights are or whether the room number is written in braille.

The information people with disability need to make a decision on their accommodation options simply isn’t available.

The theme of 2019’s Disability Action Week (15–22 September) is ‘everybody has a role to play’, a concept that rings true within the tourism, travel and accommodation sectors. 

Major accommodation providers such as hotels, motels and serviced apartments are governed by laws dictating the provision of accessible accommodation but the emergence of peer-to-peer accommodation networks – such as Airbnb – has reignited the accessibility debate.

These networks have been accused of not catering to people with disability because they are not bound by regulation to provide minimum accessibility standards.

However, the beauty of peer-to-peer is the potential it holds for offering a very specialised product to a select group of people, such as those with disability.

Airbnb properties are, for the most part, peoples’ homes. If ten percent of the population has a disability, it stands to reason ten per cent of people have set up their homes to cater to their special needs.

If these people share their houses via Airbnb when they don’t need them, it adds to a pool of suitable accommodation options for travellers with disability. 

All Airbnb hosts can increase their profitability by being accessible but they have to talk about it; they have to include detailed, accurate information in their user profile and promote their modified features as the property’s main selling point.

People with special needs seek out information before booking accommodation, they won’t stumble upon it. 

The primary challenge is no longer a lack of suitable accommodation but identifying suitable accommodation. Fortunately, this is a barrier that requires only simple and subtle adjustments to overcome:

Knowledge

Hosts frequently self-assess features of their property incorrectly. For example, a room without steps is not “accessible” as the term requires other conditions be met including minimum door width and non-slip floor coverings. There are many online forums and community organisations that can help hosts better understand the obligations of providing truly accessible accommodation.

Detail

Comprehensive accommodation listings are invaluable when trying to assess the suitability of a property. Where possible, include photographs of key accessibility features such as doorways with rulers to show scale, the location of handrails, the layout of each room and the location of appliances.

Terminology

The property listing should not reinforce stigma and stereotypes, but rather acknowledge that every guest has different needs. Avoid discriminatory, outdated and offensive terms when referring to people with disability and special needs.

Modification

Physical barriers cannot be entirely removed from Airbnb properties. Some simple and inexpensive modifications can be made including securing loose carpets and floor mats, installing dimmable lights and providing shower chairs.

Peer-to-peer accommodation hosts can maximise their returns by tapping into this willing and all-too-often overlooked market – education, information and communication are the keys.

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Sara Dolnicar

Sara Dolnicar is Professor of Tourism at the University of Queensland Business School

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